Live Blogging VSA Council, February 17, 2013

7:04 | Consent Agenda

  1. $1,533 from Conference to Wordsmiths
  2. $695 from Community to Slow Food
  3. $512 from Discretionary to TAs
  4. $792 from Conference to Haiti Project
  5. $315 from Conference to Vastards
  6. $5,000 from Conference to ViCE
  7. Preliminary Organizations
  8. Minutes from 2/10 meeting

All items are adopted without debate.

7:05 | Forum with Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann and Director of Investments Steven Dahnert

Dahnert begins the forum by outlining some basic facts.

The purpose of Vassar’s endowment is to support the College’s mission, according to Dahnert. Vassar’s committees do not choose every single specific investment that the College makes; it hires private fund managers to make individual investment decisions. However, Vassar does direct these managers to work in certain, broad ways.

Vassar does not generally monitor what assets its managers choose. According to Dahnert, one of Vassar’s typical managers make individual security selections.

Many of Vassar’s investments are held in co-mingled funds, and Vassar can not tell the managers of these funds specifically where to put the money. To explain this, Dahnert makes an analogy: Vassar has a share in these funds in the same way that stock owners have shares in companies.

Dahnert continues by saying that he believes that Vassar’s investments in fossil fuels are comparable to its peers. He reiterates that the managers of these co-mingled funds do not release specific information about the funds, but he feels confident that about 60% of the co-mingled funds have some fossil fuel exposure. In order to divest from fossil fuels, Vassar will have to leave each of these funds entirely.

“I strongly oppose divestment,” says Dahnert.

Dean Begemann begins by describing the role and responsibilities of the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee. She speaks directly about the issue of fossil fuel divestment. The CIRC has been reviewing the proposal for several weeks; once it is done, it will make a recommendation to the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee which ultimately makes the final decision in consultation with the Trustee Investor committee.

Josselyn House President Casey Hancock ’15 announces that, during the last week, the Divestment Resolution that the VSA had been considering has been changed. Now, it no longer supports the Greens’ specific divestment proposal, but divestment from fossil fuels in general. The VSA will vote on this resolution later in the meeting.

VSA President Jason Rubin ’13 asks Dahnert and Begemann to comment on the state of the endowment. Dahnert reports that the size of the endowment has returned to its 2006-2007 levels, but Vassar’s spending now is higher than it was then.

“We’re not in a sustainable position,” says Begemann, adding that the endowment per student has only grown very slightly in the last ten years, but costs have risen at a higher level.

VP for Finance Alex Koren ’13 asks why fund managers would refuse requests to divest. Dahnert says that investment managers hold funds from many different organizations, and they cannot have one single organization dictate how all of the organizations’ funds are invested.

Town Houses President Carmen Angleton ’13 asks about Vassar’s history with divestment, in particular about Vassar’s divestment during Apartheid and Sudan. Dahnert says that, during the Apartheid divestment, Vassar’s investments were mostly direct, so there was no issue with co-mingled funds. A few years later, Vassar made the decision to divest its direct investments from Sudan, but not the co-mingled funds.

Class of 2016 President Max Moran asks how much money Vassar invests directly in fossil fuels. Dahnert says that less than 1% of the endowment is directly invested in fossil fuels.

Rubin asks what effect divestment would have on fossil fuel companies. Dahnert believes it would have no effect, explaining that most trades of stock are conducted between investors, and there is a zero net sum resulting from the trades.

Lathrop House President Sophia Wallach reminds the room that the divestment proposal is not meant to have a practical impact, but to make a political statement. Dahnert does not think that the political statement will have an effect either, saying that these fossil fuel companies are extremely successful, and there is a high demand for their stocks.

“I support lowering carbon emissions, but this is not the way to do it,” says Dahnert.

VP for Academics Amanda Zeligs ’13 asks if there are other ways that the College can support the environmental cause. Dahnert says that staying invested and having a voice in the companies’ policies as shareholders would be more effective than divesting.

VP for Student Life Dallas Robinson ’14 asks if it is sustainable to stay invested with fossil fuel companies even though they are founded upon limited resources. Dahnert says that it is the fund managers’ job to account for such an issue, and that they are capable of divesting when the fossil fuel industry is no longer profitable.

“Divestment is a feel-good measure,” says Dahnert. “It’s not going to address the core problem.”

7:52 | Forum with Do Something VC

Do Something VC was created in the wake of the Westboro Baptist Church’s announcement to protest at Vassar.

Do Something VC is meant to coordinate the efforts of the entire Vassar community in responding to the WBC protest. They have been collaborating with students, faculty, staff, administrators, and student organizations.

Robinson says that some students have expressed their discomfort to her that Do Something VC is “predominantly white and male.” Robinson asks Do Something to comment. Do Something VC representative Logan Keane ’15 says they have been in contact with ALANA orgs, and everyone who is interested in joining is welcome to its public meetings.

8:07 | Given that classes will be held as usual on the Thursday that WBC will protest, representatives of Do Something VC confirm that classes will not be cancelled, but individual faculty members are allowed to cancel their own classes.

8:10 | A Resolution in Support of Fossil Fuel Divestment

Gabe Dunsmith ’14 and Noah Bogdonoff  ’14 begin by addressing Dahnert’s comments from earlier in the evening. He says that Vassar is a part of a larger national movement; if many Colleges tell their investment managers to divest, then the managers will divest.

He adds that a major part of the movement to divest is to make a political statement, but that was not a big part of Dahnert’s presentation.

Bogdonoff says that individual lifestyle changes will not make as big of an impact in the fossil fuel industry as Dahnert claimed.

Bogdonoff concludes by saying that trying to influence corporations through channels available to us as shareholders can be ineffective.

Aashim Usgaonkar ’13 claims that one of the studies that the Greens have used to support their cause is statistically meaningless. Specifically, the Greens used a study funded by the Aperio Group based on a stock index called the Russell 3000. Usgaonkar says that the way the Aperio Group used this index in their study is based on flawed assumptions.

Moran says that he fully supports the resolution, believing that it will make a political statement.

Council is currently discussing the quality of the resolution’s language.

Class of 2015 President Alison Ehrlich suggests that the VSA Council table this resolution for another week.

Steinberg supports Ehrlich’s suggestion, say she would like to make the resolution more specific.

Dunsmith says he would be disappointed if this resolution was tabled again, saying that he and the other students behind the movement have been preparing it for months.

Divestment Campaign representatives say that timing is critical in order to get on the Trustees’ agenda this semester.

VP for Activities Doug Greer ’14 says that it is inappropriate for Council to ask a student organization dedicated to making political statements, to change the statements that they are making, as tabling this resolution for amendment would do.

Ferry House Representative and member of the Campaign Lanbo Yang ’15 says that the resolution was left intentionally vague because members of the campaign do not fully understand the intricacies of Vassar’s endowment, and they wanted to leave multiple options open.

Bogdonoff and Dunsmith are now in support of tabling this resolution in an effort to make it clearer and more effective at the Board of Trustees meeting.

Council tables this resolution.

9:31 | After a five minute recess, Council, in collaboration with the Ultimate Frisbee Team, has decided to table the resolution concerning Vassar Athletics and VSA organizations.

9:33 | Executive Board Report from VSA VP for Student Life Dallas Robinson ’14

Since her appointment, Robinson has led the Student Life committee in discussions about divestment, the Westboro Baptist Church’s protest, and the VSA Council’s relationship with ALANA and spectrum organizations.

9:34 | Executive Board Report from VSA VP for Academics Amanda Zeligs ’13

The Academics Committee has been working on finishing its newsletter.

9:35 | Committee on College Life Update with President Jason Rubin ’13

The issue of a smoking ban has been on the committee’s agenda, and Rubin will have more information in the next few weeks.

Dean of Students DB Brown has proposed that exceptions be made to the usual student disciplinary hearing process to make it easier to hold hearings at the end of academic years instead of waiting until the beginning of the next academic year.

CCL has also been considering a proposal to prevent alumnae/i to come to campus on the day of the WBC protest for safety concerns.

9:39 | Smoking Ban Committee (START) Update with Terrace Apartments President Devin Griffin ’13

The Committee is moving forward with collecting student input as the Committee on College Life vote approaches in March.

9:42 | Spring Elections Timeline with Terrace Apartments President Devin Griffin ’13

Filing will begin after spring break.

It is expected that the composition of some joint committees will be changed by the Board of Trustees in the coming weeks. More information on this to come.

9:46 | Open Discussion

There are 97 days until Commencement.

The Seven Sisters’ Coordinating Board has adopted a constitution. It will be on Council’s agenda for approval next week.

9:49 | Council Adjourns